FOM: report on Rota's Indiscrete Thoughts: part 1?

Robert Tragesser RTragesser at
Tue Oct 13 03:49:49 EDT 1998

        Bravo Steve for his posting on Rota.  If there's any interest on
FOM,  I'd gladly expand on some of Rota?  But let me remark here in a
general way about Rota qua philosopher:
        Steve Simpson noted the discrepancy between Hersh's claims on Rota
and Rota's actual writings.  This has puzzled many of us who have followed
Rota closely.   Indeed,  in _What is Mathematics,  really?_,  misprisions
of Rota make Rota to appear to be the worst sort of philosophical hack, 
wildly misinterpreting Rota,  as for example Rota's paper on the pernicious
influence of mathematics on philosophy.  Notice that Rota published Hersh's
initial interesting paper in Advances in Mathematics.  Hersh's book, 
unfortunately,  does not retain the promise of the paper.  Philosophy sits
in there like lumps of uncooked dough. (Although I'll admit that the early
parts of Hersh's book,  hastily read,  made a good impression on me, 
perhaps because I was reading them for elaborations of themes in the paper.
. .but a later closer reading was depressing.)   
        Having followed Rota for 30 years,  I have found Rota to be an
original--an original philosopher;  he is unique among philosophers in the
phenomenological (and virtually any) tradition in that _he actually
practices phenomenology for the sake of extracting insight into (real)
life,  science,  mathematics__!!!!.--This is very different from most all
academic philosophers who conmcentrate on Husserl,  Heidegger,--their work,
 such as for example the writings of Follesdal -- is mainly
historical/scholarly/comparative/interpretative.   By contrast,
phenomenological thinking is deeply integrated into Rota's life and life's
work,  which make his annual well-attended lectures on phenomenology at MIT
a most stimulating affair. (I do not mean hereby to diminish the writings
of academic philosophers;  only to point out that it is something of a
tragedy for philosophy that their particular sort of distance from the real
stuff,  the way they are untouched by the need or craving for living
insight,  predominates.  It should be that they exist to feed and help the
more immediate sort of philosophy Rota practices;  they shouldn't exist in
place of it!  A work that is very close to the kind of philosophical
thinkiong Rota is after is Martin Krieger's Constitution of Matter,  the
most orginal work in the philosophy of science in the latter part of this
science.  I defy anyone to read say any thousand pages on the philosophy of
science and then read Krieger's book and deny that they acquired a far
deeper understanding of say physics and physical thinking from Krieger than
from those thousands of pages!  Many of us are hoping that Rota will be
inspired to wriote as thoproughly about mathematics. )
        A major discrepancy exists between the rather all too quick essays
published by Rota,  and the refined and thorough detail in which Rota
actually thinks.  Something of this comes through in the transcripts of his
lectures,  as well as in conversation (once one gets past an almost
unsurmountable barrier of shyness.)

Robert Tragesser
West(Running)Brook,  Connecticut

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